WHEN I WAS a student in Perm, Russia, my university friend told me that her grandparents were kulaks. The term dates back to the era of collectivization, a harsh agrarian reform that took place in the Soviet Union between the late 1920s and the early ’30s. Hitherto privately owned land and cattle were forcefully confiscated from peasants by the state, and these peasants were forced onto collective farms. Kulaks (from Russian for “fist”), a term used to refer to well-off peasant in pre-revolutionary times, acquired a negative connotation and was now used to name those who resisted Soviet reforms. They were arrested, executed, or resettled to remote areas of the USSR.

“My grandparents were not really kulaks,” my friend remembered, “they were just hard-working.” What struck me then was this free-thinking, independent young woman’s apologetic tone. Even in the late 1970s, my friend, like other relatives of repressed kulaks, felt guilty and embarrassed, because victims of collectivization were still stigmatized. Her grandmother was deported from a small Mari village in Tatarstan with a two-year-old child and other members of her family to the Khabarovsk region in the Russian Far East.

Now, years later, reading Russian writer Guzel Yakhina’s first novel, Zuleikha, I keep returning to this conversation. Yakhina, born in 1977, long after the historical events her novel depicts, masterfully draws readers back to those days. Yet at an event in Washington, DC, in May of this year, the author insisted that the novel not only portrays collectivization and Stalin’s repressions as a historic reality, but also depicts problems affecting us today: constraints on freedom and the oppression of women. Her readership includes that segment of contemporary Russian society that still feels some nostalgia for the Stalin era. By depicting the regime’s repressions, she hopes to counteract that nostalgia, specifically, as Yakhina said at her talk in Washington, in the figure of “a woman who, being emotionally and intellectually an embryo of a human being, turns into a strong and powerful person.” The book, first published in 2015, has been lauded by Russian and international critics and translated into 31 languages. It has received numerous awards, and has even been adapted as a television series in Russia. As a student of the Moscow School of Film, Yakhina originally conceived of her story as a film script. The novel’s action-packed plot is a legacy of its filmic origin.

The novel, set at first in a small Tatar village in the middle of nowhere in the 1930s, introduces the traditional family of the 30-year-old Zuleikha and unfolds against a backdrop of Stalin-era repressions. Like many other ethnic and national groups living in the Soviet Union, Tatars, who lived in Tatarstan and in other areas along the Volga River, were persecuted by the Soviet regime. Yakhina’s novel was inspired not only by her grandmother’s story, who together with her parents was deported to Siberia as a child of kulaks, as my friend’s relatives and the villagers in the novel were, but also by her knowledge of Tatar folklore. Yakhina’s childhood, spent in her grandparents’ house, where she knew each floorboard, was steeped in Tartar culture. The author’s familiarity with this culture makes her descriptions convincing and believable. The use of the Tatar words such as bichura, shurale (folklore imps), ulym (son), kyzylyk (dish), urman (forest), all thoughtfully preserved by translator Lisa Hayden, immerse readers in the atmosphere of Tatar pagan beliefs and, more broadly, in the Tartar way of life. Married at the age of 15 to a man twice her age, Zuleikha, called “a pitiful hen” by her mother-in-law, feels grateful to Allah for having given her a strong, reliable husband despite his beating and abusing her.

The author’s attention to detail is remarkable, and her portrayal of Zuleikha’s life in service of her husband and mother-in-law is striking. The novel starts with a long depiction of Zuleikha’s painful ascent to the attic to steal a sheet of apple pastila (pressed fruit). Thanks to Yakhina’s powers of description, readers are made to feel the humiliation and stress that the young woman experiences in her husband’s house. We realize she has a secret and wonder who will receive this gift of fruit. Only later do we learn that it is meant for the spirits, who, according to Zuleikha, take care of her four daughters’ graves. Tiny green-eyed Zuleikha immediately won this reader’s love. Her inner strength and resilience stand in stark contrast to her seemingly weak physical state and humble nature. Zuleikha, who mothers four daughters only to bury them within months of their birth, tries to remember her mother’s words — “work drives away sorrow” — but they don’t always help. The location of the story may be exotic and new to Anglophone readers, but the problems Zuleikha faces in the first part of the book — unfair treatment within the family, death of loved ones — are universal and relatable.

The deaths of her daughters were foretold by Zuleikha’s mother-in-law, the Vampire Hag. She finally predicts Zuleikha’s death, but she is wrong. Rather it is Zuleikha’s husband, Murtaza, who is killed by the “Red Hordesman” (Zuleikha’s name for Soviet forces), Ignatov, for trying to hide grain that would otherwise be expropriated by the authorities.

In the tradition of Leo Tolstoy, Guzel Yakhina shows how powerless people are when swept up by the whirlwind of history: Bakiev, a party leader in Kazan, is arrested, and the reason for the arrest is not explained to the reader — but the Russian audience knows Stalin’s repressions did not need a reason. Another character, Doctor Leibe, develops a mental disorder after witnessing the murder of an innocent woman, his former patient. Many lives are shortened and crippled by the regime.

Hundreds of thousands of people were relocated during the years of collectivization and dekulakization. According to Russian historian Viktor Zemskov, one of the sources on whose writings Yakhina relies, four million people fell victim to dekulakization. Zemskov distinguishes between three categories of repressed peasants. The first were arrested and convicted of the alleged crime; the second were relocated to special settlements; and the third category were relocated without being sent to special settlements.

Zuleikha belongs to the second category. Together with many of her co-villagers, my friend’s grandmother, and roughly four millions of her compatriots, she is put on a train which takes her to Siberia. Singing the names of her dead daughters — “Shamsia-Firuza. Khalida-Sabida, the wheels clack” — she rides away toward a new life. Her husband gave her poisoned sugar to kill the horse and cow so that they would die instead of being expropriated. But the cow is killed by Murtaza, and the horse is taken away, so Zuleihka keeps the sugar for herself.

When she learns she is pregnant, she remembers how her mother-in-law used to say, “You only bring girls into the world and they don’t survive.” Will the child live long enough to stand on its two feet? Will she be forgiven by Allah if, by eating the poisoned sugar, she ends the two lives? “After all,” Zuleihka thinks, “eating sugar is not like chopping your own head.” This is one of the scenes in which the author delves into her characters’ thoughts. These scenes are not numerous — the characters are more often depicted through action and dialogue — but Yakhina portrays her characters’ consciousness honestly and unsentimentally. 

As the story evolves, Zuleikha is saved from drowning in the Angara River by her husband’s murderer and the commandment of the camp, Ignatov. The sugar melts in the water, and the child is born. Yakhina makes childbirth a watershed between Zuleikha’s two lives. The long train ride, which in reality took a month and a half, lasts six months in the novel. Neither the man in charge of the exiles nor the exiles know where their journey will end, but Zulaikha’s destination, the author implies, is her new life. Patient and under the sway of her past, Zuleikha acquires a new strength from her child.

Zuleikha, formerly a slave in her husband’s house, paradoxically turns into a free and independent woman while in exile.

This transformation, emphasized by the Russian title of the novel — Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes — occurs thanks to the people around her: Doctor Leibe, who shows kindness and care and never attempts to take advantage of her situation; the artist who teaches her son to paint; and the Leningrad couple who educate him. These people, despite all the attempts to dehumanize them, preserve their dignity and strength.

Whether in the kitchen or in a hospital room, Zuleikha is hard-working, skillful, and diligent. She learns she has a sharp eye and is allowed to keep a shotgun and become a hunter. Bravely, she wanders in the urman — the forest — which she did not dare to enter in her past life. She forgets her superstition, and rarely asks Allah for help, counting instead on herself. This self-reliance is a key character trait. In her conversations with Vampire Hag (a metaphor for Zuleikha’s fears), who occasionally visits her as if trying to control her life, Zuleikha grows stronger and stronger. She is blessed to find love, but it is she who decides to start or finish her relationship with the commandment, Ignatov. Finally, having learned the value of freedom, she realizes how important it is for her teenage son to travel to Leningrad and get a good education, and, ultimately, how important it is for him to experience the world. She lets her son go, no matter how hard it is for her to break their bond.

Ignatov takes the opposite path. He remains free, but he turns into the prisoner of the system he works for and is destroyed by it. He is tormented by his guilt: he constantly sees the faces of people who lost their lives when the barge sank. He takes to drinking, but drinking does not help. Yet he retains his humanity: when offered to denounce a fake plot against authorities so that he and his supervisor can be promoted, he is indignant. He does not want to betray his people. During all these years, he takes care of them not only because it is his duty to keep them alive but also because they become his family. He makes fake documents for Zuleikha’s son, in which he claims the boy as his own son. At the end, he loses his position but stays in the settlement: he has nowhere else to go.

This novel about the two lives of one Tatar woman is a story of many women who have been forced to make difficult choices, but it is also a story that affirms humanity more broadly. It is only because the prisoners work together, applying their best skills, that they survive in the horrendous conditions of the Siberian winter. Similarly to Zuleikha’s son, my friend’s mother was born in exile. Countless Russian readers have recognized their family stories in the story of Zuleikha.

The novel will no doubt spark an interest in the recent Soviet past, as did the HBO series Chernobyl. The world we live in today is getting smaller and smaller, and learning about the histories of other nations and individual destinies different from our own may enhance our feeling of interdependence and responsibility.

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Olga Ware was born in the Soviet Union, taught at Russian universities, and worked as a translator and interpreter for the World Bank. In 2003, she moved to the United States and currently teaches Russian literature.